Describe the exact moment you decided to write your book.
I had several notebooks full of ideas for a novel but couldn’t find a way forward until I realised there were two completely different novels in there. That was a major A-HA moment. I sat on a bench in Kew Gardens, listened, and began to write.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before starting to write it?
It might take seven years and several drafts but it would eventually be read, loved and published. I used every shred of faith I had to get through it.
What’s your go-to procrastination method?
With two young children and a part-time job, I don’t really have that luxury. I’m pretty disciplined. However, now the Paper Birds are ruffling their feathers, ready to fly out into the world, twitter is much busier and that’s a really easy way to lose time and focus. When I’m struggling with something, a helpful ‘procrastination’ is playing the piano. Usually by the end of the piece, I’ve solved the sentence, or the character intention, or whatever was keeping me stuck.
What was the biggest tantrum you had while writing your book?
My agent at the time read an early draft and said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t mix up the real and the magical this way.’ I stood my ground, really wanting to push the boundaries of what literary fiction could do and still be ‘literary’. I had a belief that my quirky, hopeful book might find a readership – but the agent and I departed ways. When I submitted the next draft, six agents fell in love with it and offered representation.
Best thing about writing your book?
Firstly, it was a wonderful excuse to go to Kew Gardens regularly. And secondly, I loved the strange coincidences that happened along the way that encouraged me to keep going. Creativity is a strange and fantastic beast – a dance between me and something ‘other’, be that my subconscious or something more mysterious. Whatever it is, it feels like an act of co-creation. Another highlight was my agent ringing while I was standing outside the Palm House in Kew Gardens. I was told I had a publishing deal - and I was in the perfect place.
And the worst?
It’s an ambitious book. Weaving the real with the metaphysical was challenging at times, as was having five character perspectives and two different timelines. There were days when it felt like I was entering the boxing ring, wrestling with ideas and ending the day with my nose bloodied. There were so many different versions of the book wanting to be told, it was hard, sometimes, to decide which way to go.
Go-to writing snacks?
Coffee. Coffee. Coffee.
Who or what inspires you to write?
The first inspiration can come from the most unlikely places – an overheard conversation, a fleeting image, even a glance between two people. A specific location is often a starting point for me – the mood of a place and how it can affect people. Other writers and books are a constant fuel – and different art-forms too – dance, theatre, visual art – anything that makes my soul itch. In my research period, I’ll collect images – of location, character qualities, moods, motifs – which I pin to huge noticeboards in my room. Each time I walk in, it feels as if I’m entering the book. Working on the next novel, I’ve been listening to a lot of Max Richter. It’s music that makes you ache, that stirs up all the things unsaid - those subtle, almost indefinable emotions. There’s a propulsion to his time signatures – it helps my hands start moving without me. A constant searching and questing…
The book that changed you?
Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. It was the first time I realised that literature could do that.
Your pump up song?
She Dances by Anna Jordan. I listened to it constantly in the final drafts of Paper Birds when I was cross-eyed with exhaustion. It’s not so much a pump up song – it’s quiet with pared back vocals, percussion and Indian rhythms – but there’s a journeying to it – and it encouraged me to keep putting one step in front of the other. ‘She dances to it all. She must have heard those beats before. I hope that she’s always there. I hope that she feels the rhythm ‘til the end.’
If you could share a bottle of wine with one writer dead or alive, who would it be?
I recently loved Sarah Winman’s and Sarah Perry’s latest novels and would love to ply them with wine and ask, ‘how the hell did you do that?’ But if I have to pick one, I’ll say Audrey Niffenegger as I think our conversation would cover different art-forms and the act of creativity itself. But then again, there’s Virginia Woolf, Shakespeare…
One piece of advice you’d give first time writers hoping to get a book published?
Your art and craft are the only things that matter. Write because you need to write – because you can’t let go of an image, a character, a mystery. Write because you love the puzzle itself, the challenge. There’s a lot of noise when you get published. Whether you’re met with praise or criticism, the only real work is to continue writing, to continue striving to be better. If you’re one of the ones who can’t stop writing, you WILL get there.
First published in The Riff Raff