Is there a story about how you wrote or came to publish your first
book that you'd like to share with us?
The most extraordinary
series of coincidences paved the way for me writing my first book. I had
started writing about a fat man doing yoga in the desert when I was at UEA (the
Creative Writing MA taught at the time by
) and when I left I decided to go out to Arizona and live
alone in the desert, as my character Theo does. I arrived in LA, intending
somehow to get a car and drive out to Tucson, but without enough money to hire
a car for several months. One night I was in Starbucks and I got chatting to a
guy at the next table, and I got an overwhelming urge to tell him I needed a
cheap car. Straight away he said, You can borrow mine (it was a clapped out VW
Beetle) for 50 bucks a month. So a few days later I set off in this guy's
Beetle and just about made it in one piece to Tucson. After a week in a motel,
I started wondering how I could find somewhere cheap to stay in that was out in
the middle of the desert, and I went to a poetry reading at the university one
night, sat down next to this woman, and got an overwhelming urge to tell her I
needed a house in the middle of the desert. And she said, "You can have
mine--I'm going to Georgia tomorrow for three months to look after my mother."
It turned out her house was in Calle de Suerte--Lucky Street. When things like
that happen, you know you've got to get on with your end of the deal. So that's
where I started to write Sunset over Chocolate Mountains
Do you have a day job and career that you combine with writing,
and if so, what is it?
I've been working as a freelance journalist for the last six years
or so. Though I spend a lot of time complaining that it doesn't leave me enough
time to write fiction, it does provides a good antidote, because it gets me out
of the house and talking to people and finding out about how other people live.
I think being a journalist is the most amazing scam--it gives you the licence
to phone up almost anybody in the world and say, can I come and ask you lots of
nosy questions about yourself. What other job allows you to do that? Great for
a fiction writer.
If you now write full time, what did you do before? How and why
did you make the shift?
I know this is a real
cliché, but I've known I would write fiction since I was really
young--it's about the first thing I can remember feeling strongly about. I can
remember learning to write and thinking, this is important, because I'll need
to be able to spell if I'm going to write books. So when I went into
journalism, it was because I thought it would be good writing practice, which
it was, and I went freelance so that I could free up some time each week for
What are the key challenges to being an author in the 21st
There are an extraordinary number of books published each year and
if you add all the magazines and newspapers and everything else that is on
offer to us to read, it can make you feel quite nauseous at the thought of all
those words, all that newsprint. Writing something that competes with all that
is quite a daunting thought. Having said that, when you sit down to write, it's
such a peculiarly personal drive to express something, that you don't really
stop to think about whether this is a necessary addition to the book mountain.
In 1929 Virginia Woolf said that a writer needed £50 a year
income and a room of her own; what do you think an author needs now in the
way of practical support?
I might want to up the income a bit, but otherwise I totally
agree. You have to step right into the world in your head when you're writing,
and to do that you need to leave the real world behind for a while, and that
isn't really possible when you're earning a living as well. I find it hard
swapping from one mind-set to another--the working, journalist side of my life
which is busy and buzzy and all about deadlines--to the quiet, contemplative
mind-set which you need to write fiction. You can waste half a day getting
yourself out of one mind-set and into another, and if you can only afford to
write fiction one or two days a week, that's a lot of time. If I could write
full-time, my next novel would get done in a third of the time.
How do you evaluate the responses and feedback of the people who
buy and read your books?
It's totally wonderful when
you get a letter from a reader. The only author I've ever written to who I
didn't know was Roald Dahl when I was about eight, and I find it really
touching that there are adults out there who take the time to sit down and
write and say what they felt about your book. It makes it all become real--better than a review in a newspaper any day.
What's the most striking thing a reader--not a literary critic or
reviewer--has said to you about your book?
That they ended up missing a day's work because they started
reading it in bed in the morning and couldn't stop...
Do you think the UK is a good place to be a writer?
Better than LA where every other person is a writer so none of you
gets taken seriously
Name a book you wish you'd written. Why?
In the Skin of a
. He captures the characters and their world with this
extraordinarily delicate, poetic touch--as if they are butterflies that he
can't grasp too firmly in case they're damaged, and yet you get them
completely. He's a totally wonderful writer.
Do you think creative writing should be encouraged and supported
within formal academic institutions? What are the upsides and downsides of
Yes I think it's really sad that kids stop writing stories at
school when they hit 12 or 13. It would be great if creative writing was still
taught after that. If it can be taken as an MA, why can't it be taken as a