What did you want to be when you grew up?
For the longest time I wanted to be a nurse. I remember reading over and over, the Sue Barton – Nurse series by Helen Dore Boylston, and thinking it sounded very glamorous and romantic; I’d end up marrying a doctor and we’d live happily ever after saving the world together. It never occurred to me to want to be the doctor instead… I never became a nurse but I did study community health and epidemiology instead.
What is your favorite genre and what drew you to it?
In terms of my own writing, I’m not sure how I would classify it. Obviously, my book A Blonde Bengali Wife is a travel memoir and creative non-fiction (although I still often call it travel chick-lit). For the last few years, my short stories and the novel I’ve recently completed, have been defined by the demands of doing a PhD, so I’ve been aiming for the commercial end of literary fiction – if that can be considered a genre. In terms of reading, I’m a butterfly: I like (not too gory) crime thrillers and cosy mysteries, but also the fun and entertainment of chick-lit. Then again, I like the quirky… I just like reading and I’ll try anything!
When did you start writing in a professional way?
At the time I was working on A Blonde Bengali Wife, my day job was with a Scottish national charity and was full time but very flexible. I happened to see an ad for the MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University; on a whim I applied, and somehow got accepted. I’d already found a literary agent for my book, and these combined events encouraged me in the direction of writing as a career. By 2010, I had had a baby, found work as a creative writing tutor, and started to do some fiction-editing work. It all took off from there.
Do you have a specific writing method or ritual? How many hours do you devote to writing every day?
I fit in writing whenever I can. I love doing it and can’t imagine not, but as it doesn’t (yet!) pay the bills, it’s a matter of juggling parenting with teaching and editing, and trying to ensure the writing isn’t totally lost. At the end of last year I set myself the target of entering a number of short story and novel-writing competitions, simply to force myself to meet deadlines. It seems to be working. I try to do something every day; it’s usually late in the evening after my little boy is in bed and it might be pages or just be a few sentences in my notebook but it keeps the momentum going. I’m now starting a second novel.
What part of writing do you enjoy most?
The editing, for sure! I’m always envious of all the writers I meet who are brimming with ideas. I’m not. My brain grinds away slowly and I still find starting a new project intimidating rather than exciting. Henry Miller said, ‘If you can’t create, you can work’, and I’ve adapted this to mean even if you’re not feeling creative, you should write: words on the page always lead to something, sometime… My favourite stage is having a detailed draft completed, no matter however rambling, clumsy, weak or over-written I think it is. Being able to pull it apart and turn it into something cohesive and readable is where the magic lies. It’s clearly the reason why I enjoy editing other author’s novels so much.
How do you develop your characters?
I start out with a vague notion of who they are and what their story might be, then I just spend time thinking, doodling, living with them, until they begin to take shape. It’s a bit like meeting someone for the first time, forming an impression and then getting to know them better. Then as I begin to write the story (I take a less holistic and more planned approach to the plot and storyline even though it will keep evolving) I automatically know how the character will react in different situations. Interestingly, I often don’t really know what a character truly looks like, in terms of physical appearance, even when I’ve finished their story.
Which of the characters in any of your books mean the most to you and why?
In A Blonde Bengali Wife all of my ‘characters’ are obviously real people, and those that travel with me throughout the book remain good friends now. I love that several of them have read, and thankfully enjoyed, the book and their roles as characters in it. Maybe it’s the legacy of this, but in terms of Grand Pause, the novel I’ve just finished, I actually have trouble remembering the characters are not actual people. The novel is set in Cyprus, a place of which I’m very fond and several times I’ve myself thinking, ‘oh, I could go and visit Helene or April,’ then realising that no, I can’t – the places exist but the characters are only in my imagination. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that I’m a little in love with all of them.
What are your aspirations as a writer and where do you see yourself in five years time?
I love the way my life is structured now – the mix of writing, editing, tutoring, alongside the joy of living with my son – and I’d simply like that to continue, but with a slight change in emphasis. If I could spend more time writing; that is, writing novels and making a small living from them, that would be great!
Which author has influenced your writing most?
I’m most influenced by the life stories and careers of ‘ordinary people’ who have persevered and, often against all odds, but certainly by virtue of sheer hard work, have made their writing dreams come true. It’s a very, very uncertain business and sometimes I wonder if now, at forty-something, I am being naïve in following the dream. After all, I could stick to editing and teaching, which I really enjoy and know I can do. But then again, I can’t not write. Most recently, I read a really inspiring article by Joanna Cannon, when she was named one of The Guardian’s ‘new faces of fiction for The Trouble With Sheep and Goats (and the novel is highly recommended too).
If you could go back in time and rewrite a known work of fiction, which would it be? Would you change the end? What would your alternative be?
I’m not sure I dare suggest any changes to a classic! There are more contemporary novels I would love to tinker with, but I’m reluctant to name them as I know the amount of work that the authors have already put in. If pushed, I’d say there are elements of Jane Eyre I’d explore – slightly tongue-in-cheek. I’d like Rochester to play harder to get when Jane returns; more in line with his earlier awkward self. I’d like St John Rivers to do something wild on his missionary travels. And I’d change Helen Burns’ personality to make her less irritatingly saintly!
What would you like to say to your readers?
Thank you for reading. Thank you for your reviews, and for taking the time to send me messages about what the writing has meant to you. For me, there’s an especial thank you to the readers of A Blonde Bengali Wife because all the proceeds from that go to the charity Bhola’s Children; every time I visit Bangladesh I can actually see the difference this support is making.
A colour- Blue – a crisp, clear, Scottish sky blue (it does happen!)
A day of the year- Easter Monday – promising the light and warmth of Spring
A favourite recipe- Chilli Chocolate Brownies
A movie- The Sound of Music or The Decline of the American Empire
A song- Fairytale of New York (The Pogues and Kirsty McColl) for the lines: ‘I could have been someone/Well so could anyone…’
A quote- ‘The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments’. (Flaubert)