TMO: Your books are best-selling adventure books, brilliantly written but traditional in a certain sense – obeying the rules of the genre, whereas when I read interviews with you it’s clear that you’re extremely well read and have an admiration for the literary form (for wont of a better term), where form is at least equal if not more important than the plot itself. Does that create a tension for you in your work?
That’s a great question, and it lies at the heart of why it took me quite a while to find my voice as a writer. Because I am indeed very interested in writing in terms of ideas, form and structure as well as storytelling, with the Women’s Prize for fiction as well, and as I was a publisher, I assumed that as a writer I would be of a more investigative type, that I would be more interested in form, in the way that ideas show themselves on the page, and the genre in which they do. That was the tension for me. So when I started writing I discovered that my voice was very much a storyteller’s voice, as opposed to a craft-person’s voice.
To start with I tried to get away from that, because it wasn’t the voice for the books I thought I wanted to write. It was only when I understood that the person you are as a reader, and the person you are as a writer might coincide, but actually they might be different, that I resolved this. In my case the things that I actually love about reading, which are pace and character, and plot and storytelling, matter more to me than what I admire about reading. My skill turned out to be as a storyteller, not a crafts-person. This is not to say that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking of every word, every sentence, and with The Taxidermist’s Daughter in particular, I’ve been delighted by the reviews – I’ve never had such a lovely set of reviews, and that’s given me great pleasure – but in the end when a reader comes up to me and says ‘I couldn’t put it down’, that matters more to me than someone saying ‘that sentence was beautiful’.
“if great art is above gender, which I think it is, then the absence of women in many fields is something which should be looked at and talked about”
TMO: Is there a snobbishness directed against storytelling? Do you think that literariness is valued over storytelling?
There is an idea that they are separate, but at the same time the evidence shows that it’s not the case, both historically and in a contemporary way. Some of the writers that are most lauded, the great writers of our age, are astonishing storytellers, whether it’s Hilary Mantel, or Sarah Waters – we all have our own lists. We also see, when we look back, that the novels that have endured over hundreds and hundreds of years, are the ones where you want to know what happened. That’s it really. We all read for different things, and have different tastes, but I always refer back to the wonderful Margaret Atwood, and her wonderful book about writing, Negotiating with the dead. She has a wonderful take – and I’m paraphrasing here – that there are only four types of books: literary books that are good, literary books that are bad, commercial books that are good, and commercial books that are bad, and that’s it.
All you want in a book is that the author delivers what she/he has promised. That’s it. Have they done what they set out to do, and done it well? It might be the most literary novel, like the wonderful prize winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for fiction, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a half-formed thing, which is the most literary novel that has ever won the prize, or it might be the latest novel from Ian Rankin, but the only question really that matters is whether the author has succeeded in what they set out to do. Have they kept their promise to their readers?
Once you start to think about writing and writers in those terms, you’re liberated, because you don’t have to wonder whether people are going to think your book better than this person’s, or that person’s, or better than your last one; if you put the reader at the heart of the experience, and the sense of you fulfilling the promise of what you set out to do, then you will have joy in your writing regardless of how well it sells, or how well it’s reviewed once it’s out there.
TMO: I’m curious about this idea that your latest novel comes from childhood memories. With The Taxidermist’s Daughter, do you think you could you have written it earlier?
I might have done, if I’d had a gap. The thing about stories is that they come to you when they come to you. Some writers have more method in it, in that they know they’re going to write a sequence of novels with certain characters etc.and they’ll do one a year, and that suits them. We all have different ways of being inspired, and of capturing stories that come into our minds. For me I have to hold my nerve and wait for the story to come. I never think ‘ah! I’ve got a free year now, I’m going to choose to write a novel about taxidermy’. It just so happened that in January last year I reminded myself of that museum, and my interest in it, and out of that suddenly I realised I had a story that I wanted to tell. The same thing happened with The Winter Ghost, another of my stand-alone novels. We went to a place in France that I’d been to loads of times before in the summer, no whispers or echoes, it said nothing to me as a writer, but then we went in Winter and immediately I knew I had a story. So I wait.
The big historical series, that we’re announcing next year, that I’ve just started doing research for, that’s been bubbling away for a couple of years, and now suddenly I’ve realised that there’s something more to it; that it’s not just that it’s interesting to me, but there’s a story starting to come and tap me on the shoulder.
How daunting is it to set out on another trilogy? It’s a huge undertaking isn’t it?
It is a huge undertaking, but it’s really lovely. I feel very excited about it at the moment. The idea of having the luxury to think of three novels that are properly sequential, unlike the Languedoc trilogy which although there are three books, each of which is a love letter to Carcassone, they caneach be read on their own. They’re not really a trilogy in the sense of continuing characters and continuing narrative. They do stand on their own, whereas the new trilogy will be absolutely a sequence of novels that follows one to the other, so what it feels like is one gigantic big story. It doesn’t really feel like three books to me at the moment, it feels like there’s a starting location, and then there will be that one, and then it will finish here, so for me again it’s the place that lies at the heart of it.
The idea of having the time to really think things through, and to know that if I come across something that I really fancy, but which doesn’t fit the narrative of the early parts of the story, I can save it to use later in the story – that’s wonderful! That feels like a real treat actually. It feels like one big piece of work, rather than three big pieces of work.
TMO: Why do you think place so important to your work?
I suppose.. I grew up in Sussex. I grew up walking in the downs, and in very ancient forests, and on the shore and the estuary, and very deeply seamed in me is the idea, I suppose, that where you’re from forms your character; that the way the world changes around you, the seasons, is an amazing thing; I suppose I was always very struck by the idea that the land continues on pretty much the same, while people came and went. The views that I look out on in Sussex, and certainly in Carcassone, that although there are electricity pylons or cars or the other things that people do to the earth to muck it up, at the same time the Pyrenees, south downs, were there a long time before being inhabited, and will be there a long time after we’ve all gone. I think that sense of people and landscape belonging to the same thing was just a part of my childhood and what I felt every day. I don’t know if I’d grown up in the heart of London or Manhattan, whether I’d be a very different type of writer but…
I suppose it was also reading fiction when I was younger, and realising the novels that I kept going back to were the ones where the landscape was at the heart of it, whether it’s Wuthering Heights, whether it’s Jack London, whether it’s Willa Cather, that they appealed more to me than the drawing rooms of Jane Austen, or the more urban settings of some of the more modern American writers. It’s just naturally my preference. I prefer to be walking in the woods with my dog, than to be in a city.
Is it a good time to be a writer? Are writers facing the same existential crisis that musicians and film-makers appear to be suffering due to the internet?
I think all writers have different opinions about it. There are many surveys released that suggest that writers earnings on average are going down rather than up, but I think with writers the truth is that, however it’s monetised, you have to want to do it, because you’re sitting on your own all the time. It’s got to be that it matters more to you to write than to not write, that it’s worse not to write than to write, and once it becomes that, it becomes about the work in the first instance. Then there are many opportunities for getting your work out there – many more opportunities than there were in the past. There are problems with that, in terms of quality and control of material, and who’s supporting who; are publishers angels or demons? Is Amazon an angel or demon? All of these things.
There are many things about technology which are influencing how writers think about themselves and their work, but in terms of an individual woman or man sitting down and saying ‘Today I’m going to start that story that I’ve always promised myself I was going to write’ or that poem, or that play, I think that idea that writing is something personal and worth doing is very strong at the moment. So on balance I would say it’s a really great time to be a writer, because writing is respected.