Frequently Asked Questions
Did you always want to be a writer?
No. When I was young I wanted to be a choreographer, an art historian, then later an actress and a director. I enjoyed especially working with young opera singers teaching them acting skills. I only came to writing in my early thirties.
How do you get an idea for a book?
Some are straightforward and others I really struggle with. Elegance was easy as it was my first novel; I’d found the original encyclopedia of elegance by Genevieve Dariaux years before in a second hand bookshop and had always wanted to do something around it. Essentially the construction of the novel was 26 short stories about the same character that I then linked together. But, for example, with Innocence, I wrote the ending first and then had to work backwards. I think of The Debutante and The Perfume Collector as ‘found object’ books – books that tell two stories in separate time periods that are bound together by an object one of the main characters discovers. Often I choose a structure that moves back and forth in time and hinges on several main characters – I’m trying to cast the widest net of perspective without losing the focus of the tale. I suppose I think about the structure of the novel first and the story second. Often I don’t know what the book is really about until I’m done.
Do you outline the book before you write it?
I’ve tried doing that, thinking it will help me meet my deadlines but it’s never worked. I’ve mapped detailed sections out in notebooks that are never looked at again. Fiction has a way of slipping through your best-laid plans. I won’t be so fey as to say that the characters come alive and start doing whatever they want, but they are largely unknown in the beginning, even to the writer. As they emerge, they evolve and the plot shifts accordingly. It only takes a morning of writing to become excited about something you never anticipated would be touched upon in your book, and then for the central theme to be re-imagined. In fact, those unexpected shifts are what’s fun about writing.
What is your typical writing day like?
I get my son off to school in the morning and then I work sitting up in bed with my laptop, most times still in my pajamas and with lots of hot, strong coffee. If I don’t do it first thing, I probably won’t do it at all. Writing is hard for me. I write and delete and write some more. I head off in directions that I later cut. I sometimes have to trick myself into doing it. If I’m writing new material I can maybe work for three and a half hours. Then I need to take a break. If I’m rewriting, I can go longer. A lot of the book gets visualized when I’m away from the computer – walking, driving, knitting; something I can do on automatic. I wish I met a word count every day – I’ve tried that and I tend to write very quickly to meet the quota and then have to cut ninety percent because it’s not good enough. I prefer to just write until I’ve reached the end of my imagination for that day.
What do you do if you get writer's block?
I write anyway. Who can afford writer’s block? Besides, bad writing is part of the deal – if you’re afraid of your own bad writing, this really isn’t the profession for you. What will you do when you get brutal notes from an editor?
Are your books at all autobiographical?
Because I was trained as an actress, I was always encouraged in drama school to take whatever experiences or emotions I could relate to from my own life and use them; apply them to the scenes I was working on as a way into the drama. So I’ve taken a great many situations I’m familiar with (unsuccessful American actresses in London) or characters who’ve captivated me and used them, especially in my first two books, Elegance and Innocence. This method was complicated by the fact both were written in the first person present tense and so sometimes gave the impression of a true account. However, I fictionalized those situations, pushing the drama this way and that, distorting personalities, shoving in new characters - as a result none of them is an accurate representation of anything that occurred in my life. In fact, I’m certain there’s more fiction in my fact than fact in my fiction. Since then, I’ve been more careful. I suppose who you are bleeds into and informs everything you do, but no, nothing is directly autobiographical in my novels.
Which books or authors influenced you?
I’ll never forget the first time I read A. S. Byatt’s Possessionand what a huge impression it made on me. The sheer breadth and range of the work and its structure is astounding. Likewise I can clearly recall the intense excitement of seeing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia open at the Royal National Theatre and then reading the script afterwards. Both works tell the story in two time frames, folding together to build to a single, powerful climax. I’ve been paying homage to them ever since. I re-read The Odyssey often. Dickens’ plotting is always so fearless that it never fails to give me courage. I’m also a huge admirer of Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Edith Wharton, Jane Austen, Anita Loos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Damon Runyon, Henry James and am bitterly jealous of the modern day talent of Katherine Bucknell, Juliet Nicolson, Tracy Chevalier and Gillian Greenwood.