My father’s passion for books, my mother’s way with words and habit of exaggeration, and the general craziness of our household are probably all behind my compulsion to write. As a child, I loved everything school had to offer: writing, science, art. I studied English Literature at university and graduated in 1979. Although I had won writing competitions as a child (a bizarre children’s cruise around the Adriatic, a bus trip around Europe), it was only after university, and very gradually, that I began to write seriously, supporting myself by means of temporary jobs and then a training as carpenter and joiner. My first novel, Back in the First Person, was published in 1986, followed by another the year after. At this point I decided to enrol for the MA in Creative Writing at UEA, taught, then, by Rose Tremain and Malcolm Bradbury. During the MA, and for some years after this, I found myself juggling writing and teaching. I taught fiction writing and literature courses for universities in the UK, Finland and Estonia. I held long-term writer’s residencies in many schools and a variety of other institutions and communities, including a fishing village and a category B men’s prison. Two more books were published.
By the mid-nineties, I was pretty much exhausted. Times were hard in publishing. As in Music, a book I’m still fond of, didn’t make it into paperback despite great notices. Disillusioned, I tried to give up writing novels, dabbled with writing for TV, and then undertook a lengthy training as a counsellor and psychotherapist. I worked briefly in a therapeutic community for drug users. It was all very interesting but as time wore on I had to admit that yes, I was, in fact, writing another novel. By this time I was in my late thirties; I had met my husband to be and was pregnant. The first draft of my fifth novel, The Story of My Face (eventually to be long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002) and my first child arrived at around the same time. Revision was as a result rather slow, but the book was being edited for publication by the time I had my second baby.
In 2001 my family and I decided to try out life on an island off the coast of British Columbia. It was as I sorted through papers to pack or jettison that I rediscovered an abandoned novel based on my prison residency and decided to resurrect it. In doing so I set myself many challenges, not the least of them being research at a distance of several thousand miles. On the other hand, one of the benefits of our rather impetuous move has been a writing office in the woods, not just a room of my own but a whole building, with a view – and a solar panel, too. The novel, Alphabet, came out in 2005, and I have written five books in that office now.