What’s a piece of writing advice that’s held true for you?
Speak the truth. It’s a piece of advice I heard after I’d written the first draft of The Dictator’s Wife. That’s the funny thing about fiction — you’re making up truths, which feels contradictory. For me, a writer’s job is to understand human behaviour. If writing doesn’t have emotional integrity, then the characters’ motives are fundamentally unstable, so people can’t identify with them. And if they don’t identify with the characters, they can’t engage with the story.
What’s the thing you read when you want to remember how to write?
I should probably say that I pick up poetry, or a classic. Sometimes that does work. But really, when I’m feeling lost or wrung-out (whether in writing or in other parts of life!) I’ll go back to the fantasy books I read as a kid. Writers like Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, Jonathan Stroud. They make me fall in love once more with the magic of stories, and that’s when I remember to appreciate this job again. Once I can find the magic, the writing will flow.
I also try to read all the time. A really good book makes me mad — like, how are they doing that?
What’s a writing strategy you’ve developed that’s worked for you?
There are some fairly basic tenets for me, like, I write in the mornings, and I don’t work well from home. There’s an unhelpful stereotype of the tormented writer tearing their hair at their desk — possibly while intoxicated — but in my experience my best work comes when I’m in a sane, relaxed place. So I try to live life outside my writing. Exercise, fresh air, socialising. Then bring that energy to my work.
That said, if I’m up against a deadline, breakfast burritos can help…
As a writer, how do you stay curious or keep yourself curious?
Controversial — I actually don’t know if I am particularly curious, unless curiosity is the same as the need to mine your own head. It’s the reason I quit journalism: I was less interested in reality than in what I could make reality into.
But I do know that if writing is a struggle, it’s best to treat it like a nervous animal, or maybe a boy you fancy… not paying it any attention, approaching it crabwise. I like doing random things — reading oddly appealing non-fiction books, watching films, going to museums, lying under a tree and thinking about nothing much. Just enjoying life. The best thoughts come when you’re not striving for them, and like most people, I’m most engaged when I’m happy.
How would you describe your relationship with your readers? (especially if it’s evolved)
As a debut novelist, I’m still getting my head round the fact that my book is out there in the wild. There’s a risk with all the madness around publication that you get caught up in the process and overlook what this is really about — saying something that connects with people. I had a reader who is undergoing cancer treatment. She got in touch to say how The Dictator’s Wife had helped her escape the misery of chemo. That meant more to me than I can say.
What’s your one tip (that doesn’t get discussed enough) for a writer trying to improve in 2022?
I read somewhere that every writer of prose should really be reading poetry. Then, instead of trying to write prose, you try to write poetically, and your writing is elevated accordingly.
Writing is art. I think if you start with that, then all the more workmanlike elements like plot and backdrop will grow far more organically.