Frequently Asked Questions
- Did you always want to be a writer?
- What's your writing day like?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- How much do you plan a book in advance?
- How do you do your research?
- Are any of your books autobiographical?
- How do you cope with writer's block?
- Which is your favourite of your own books?
- What do you think of the TV adaptations of your books?
- Are there plans to adapt The Night Watch for TV?
- Will you ever write a sequel to Tipping the Velvet or The Night Watch?
- Who are your favourite writers, and which writers have influenced you?
- Do you think of yourself as a lesbian writer?
- What's your advice to people who are trying to get published?
- How long does it take you to write a book?
- Will you ever write a novel with a contemporary setting?
- What book do you wish you had written, and why?
- What are you working on at the moment?
Not exactly. I loved writing stories and poems when I was a child – they were all dreadfully derivative, total rip-offs of the ghost and horror stories, and the Dr Who novelisations, that were my staple reading at the time. But once I started A Levels, I became more interested in studying literature than in writing it myself. I did an English degree and an MA, followed, a few years later, by a PhD; the thesis looked at lesbian and gay historical fiction, and it was only as I was working on it that I began to think I might like to try and write a lesbian historical novel myself. As soon as the PhD was finished, in 1995, I started work on Tipping the Velvet. It was a complete leap of faith; I had no expectations that it would ever be published. It took a few months to find an agent who would take it on – but by then I must have been hooked on writing, because, despite a small pile of rejection letters, I'd already started my second novel, Affinity.
Writing is the best job in the world, but it's still work, and I try to keep my days as disciplined as I can. I aim to be at my desk by 9.45am. If for some reason I don't get there till after ten, I feel like I've failed before I've started. It's always horrible getting going, especially on a Monday; I think I probably peak in efficiency in the early afternoon, and then it's a rapid downward slide until about 5 o'clock. When I'm at the start or in the middle of the book, writing fresh material every day, I don't let myself turn off the computer until I've written at least 1,000 new words. A lot of my writing process, however, is taken up with rewriting; and in the final few months on a novel, when I'm editing and polishing, I'll work at all sorts of hours, at night and at weekends – at that stage, with the book nearing completion, it can be alarmingly hard to stop.
Oh, from all over the place – from conversations with friends; from things I see in the paper or overhear on the bus. Because my novels so far have all been historical, my research has thrown up a lot of ideas. With Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, for example, I was looking for areas of Victorian culture in which passions between women might have sprung up, and that led me to male impersonation in the music hall, to women's clubs, to the suffrage movement, to prisons, to spiritualism… With The Night Watch, I started with the haziest sense of a few people living in London during World War Two, but once I started doing research into London life in the period, getting a sense of what was typical, what was likely, those people emerged for me as characters with jobs, clothes, and voices. As far as the technical side of writing goes, a big source of inspiration for me is other books, and films. I love seeing how stories are told; I love it when a book or a film pulls of a really great effect – a revelation or a reversal. It makes me want to scurry back to my desk and try to pull off some impressive effect in my own work.
A lot. I like to have a very good sense of the shape and content of a book before I start writing it. To launch into a novel with no real idea of what it's going to look like when it's finished – which is something I know many writers do all the time – would make me very uneasy. With all my novels except The Night Watch, I pretty much had the whole plots worked out before I began writing; the exciting part, then, came in discovering how my characters felt about each other, and about the (sometimes dastardly) things I needed them to do. The Night Watch was very different. I started only with a mood, a sketchy sense of my characters, and a general idea about the novel's backward structure. Scenes and conversations had to be figured out as I went along, and I found that very stressful – though it was very satisfying to get there in the end.
Well, I'm usually drawn to a particular period or milieu because I already have a little bit of knowledge about it. When I started Tipping the Velvet, for example, I had recently finished my PhD thesis on lesbian and gay writing, and knew a certain amount about the queer underworlds of Victorian London. By the time I began Fingersmith, several years later, I'd read a lot of nineteenth-century novels, so the gothic spaces of Victorian life – the country houses, the asylums, the thieves' kitchens – were already pretty familiar. When I made the shift to the 1940s for The Night Watch, I had so much new research to do it felt almost overwhelming. I started by reading histories of London life in the period; I visited museums and record offices; I watched lots of '40s films, read every wartime novel I could get my hands on – and, perhaps most usefully, I read lots of wartime diaries. Each time I made a decision about a character – where they worked, where they lived – my research became more focused and manageable.
No. Inevitably, there are bits of me and my experiences in all my books, but if ever I've used small autobiographical touches, it's been in combination with pure fiction, to the extent that those touches have usually ended up morphing into something else entirely. I'm sure all writers are basically the same: we're like Wombles, picking up stuff here and there – some of it our own stuff, some of it our friends' – but putting it to new, occasionally peculiar, but hopefully highly imaginative uses.
I'm not sure I've ever suffered from what I'd think of as real writer's block. But writing is always hard work, and there are always times when the process feels completely stuck. I spend a lot of time at my desk groaning. I do tend to feel, though, that if you plug away at a scene for long enough, you will get there in the end. I sometimes look at other writers' work, to see how they managed a particular issue. I'll talk things through with friends: usually, putting a problem into words will make me realise what exactly I'm trying to achieve, and where I'm going wrong. But for me, the absolutely best way to get things moving is to leave the desk and go for a walk. I find walking through London particularly inspiring – there's so much life in it, so many stories and voices.
Oh, I like them all in different ways. Tipping the Velvet is very dear to me, because it was my first novel, and was such fun to write. At the moment, having just finished it, and still being involved with its characters and story, I'm rather keen on The Little Stranger. I've never re-read any of my books after publication, however, so I don't know what I'd make of them if I did.
I've had three of my novels adapted for television, and I've been delighted with the outcome, every time. I find the adaptation process an absolutely fascinating one, and I've been lucky in having teams of people who've taken my books very seriously and done a really good job with them. I've never been involved creatively with the work, but I've felt very included in the process, meeting the scriptwriters and producers and talking through the project with them; seeing drafts of the script; meeting the actors and directors, visiting the sets and watching the filming – even having a part as an extra, in each adaptation. It's sometimes quite odd, seeing my characters, settings and stories brought to life. It was almost unnerving watching Keeley Hawes on stage as a male impersonator in Tipping the Velvet, she looked so exactly like my own image of Kitty Butler.
Yes. The project is currently in development with the BBC.
I very much doubt it. Tipping the Velvet was great fun to write, and I would cheerfully write it all over again; but it's a neat, old-fashioned story with a happy ending, and I think it should be left that way. The Night Watch is much less tidy: we only really get fragments of its characters' lives. But that's like life, isn't it? I don't think I even know myself what the future has in store for Kay, Duncan, Helen and Viv. They come into focus for me for the life of the book, then sort of fade into darkness.
My favourite writers include Dickens, the Brontes, Elizabeth Taylor, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Iris Murdoch, Patrick McGrath, and Kazuo Ishiguro. My influences, I think, have come from lots of different authors and texts. Angela Carter's books made a huge impression on me when I first read them in my twenties: she was a wonderfully feminist writer, and a great literary stylist. Jeannette Winterson's novels showed me that it was possible to write fiction that was both ambitious and lyrical, and had an outspoken lesbian agenda. Philippa Gregory's brilliant Wideacre trilogy, with its mix of melodrama and feminist politics, got me thinking about genre and what can be achieved with it. Chris Hunt's Street Lavender – a marvellous depiction of gay male life in Victorian London – was a direct influence on Tipping the Velvet. For me, and I think for most writers, reading and writing are intimately linked. I was a reader before I was a writer, and I shall still be reading, I hope, long after I've written my last book. What motivates me as an author is at heart a simple excitement about literary effect. I will see a book and think: That's brilliant! I want to do something just like that!
Yes and no. I am very comfortable with the concept of a 'lesbian writer' or a 'lesbian text'. Most of my novels so obviously foreground passions between women that it has made lots of sense to me to invoke the 'lesbian' label. I have many enthusiastic lesbian readers who have been with me right from the start – long before I became popular as a mainstream writer – and I am very grateful to them. At the same time, of course, I don't sit down at my desk every morning thinking, 'I am a lesbian writer'. Most of my working life is spent grappling with words and stories – and at that point I am simply 'a writer', like any other writer. In other words, lesbian passions and issues are there in my books in the same way that they are there in my life: they are both vitally important to me, and completely incidental.
First: keep trying. Tipping the Velvet, my first novel, was rejected by about ten publishers before I finally managed to place it. Rejections are terribly disheartening, but placing a novel is a question of finding the right person to take it on – someone who will believe in it, and champion it on your behalf – so it's going to take a lot of trial and error before you find the right home.
Second: get an agent. You'll get nowhere without one. Finding an agent can sometimes feel as difficult as finding an editor – but again, it's a question of hitting the right target. Do some research, then draw up a list of agents who handle material resembling yours and work your way through it.
Third: get feedback from readers while your book is still in manuscript, and be prepared to rewrite and revise your work, sometimes radically. Find a small number of readers you can trust to be honest with you, and whose opinions you respect. Joining a writing group can be useful, if you feel really in tune with the other members. I was in a writing group for a while, and it was fantastically helpful.
It varies with each book. Tipping the Velvet took eighteen months, which seems like the blink of an eye to me now – but then, it was a very straightforward narrative, and I had no other demands on my time in those days. Affinity and Fingersmith took about two and a half years each. The Night Watch took a whopping four years – partly because of the change of period, which meant I had to do a ton of new research, but mainly because it was a bit of a troublesome book for me, in all sorts of ways. With The Little Stranger I was back on form at two and a half years. I can't imagine writing a novel more quickly than that – and I don't think I'd want to. A novel has to simmer away in your head for a good while in order to grow and develop.
I used to say I never would. My way into writing fiction was through history, and it's mainly the past, and the complexity of our relationship with it, that continues to inspire me as a writer. But I think of myself primarily as a story-teller, and stories can rise up and take hold of one in unexpected ways. It may well be that one day a story will come along that very obviously can only work in a contemporary setting.
I'd like to have written Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. Du Maurier's writing is a bit ropey at times, but her novels and stories are fantastically moody and resonant, and Rebecca, in particular, just feels so fundamentally right – like a myth, or a fairy tale. I'd love to be able to produce a novel with that kind of life and punch. A more recent book I admire and envy is Kate Summerscale's study of a nineteenth-century murder case, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. It is so brilliantly done, and so exactly my cup of tea.
I have an idea for the next book, but at the moment, with The Little Stranger so recently finished, I'm not doing any writing at all: most of this year will be taken up with travelling and promotion. But a break from writing is no bad thing. I'm hoping to read a lot, and think a lot, and have a story ready to start exploring once I can get back to my desk again.