Where do you write?
At home and occasionally in the office at weekends to get away from yowling cats and teenagers, or is it the other way round?
When did you start writing?
I have been a journalist for most of my working life so I have been writing for a living for the best part of 40 years. My first “creative” writing ( not that journalism is not very creative you understand) was for a film script of a story I had filed as a foreign correspondent in Beijing in 1985. The story bought a call from Hollywood (yes it does happen) and the script finally emerged twenty years later as the film Children of Huang Shi starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. That led to a book telling the true story (films can play a little fast and loose with history) of George Hogg, an Englishman who became a hero in China and died there in 1945.
What are the pros and cons of being a writer?
If you really are a writer, you just can’t help yourself. It’s a compulsion. The con is that you shut yourself away from friends and family, all of whom regard you as a selfish hermit .The advantage is that you get to do something interesting and occasionally beautiful with you own time – if you are lucky.
What writers have inspired you?
First William Faulkner. I read everything he had written when I was a teenager. Now I find him almost unreadable. I think Boyd, Hornby and McEwan are the best of the current English writers and I enjoy them hugely .Otherwise I go back to the old masters: Wodehouse, Chandler and Dickens – you won’t go wrong if you have their books on your bedside table.
How important is a sense of place in your writing?
Very. I think research to bring a book’s setting to life is vital. The more readers believe in the place you have created the greater the confidence they have in your characters. Small recognisable details that stick in the reader’s mind really help. Raymond Chandler is a brilliant example of a writer who captured the sleazy underbelly of Californian life in the forties by a wonderful portrayal of those means streets in LA and San Francisco. And for a big picture artist think of that opening chapter of Great Expectations by Dickens: you can almost smell the salt tang coming off those windswept Essex marshes.
Do you spend a lot of time researching your novels?
Absolutely. For On the Broken Shore I spent two weeks in Cape Cod and then several days in my old University St Andrews. Both are settings for the story and I hope I have given readers a real sense of those two very different places and have shown how the characters are shaped by their own geography as much as their past lives.
Do your characters ever surprise you?
Sometimes yes. The main character in the book I am writing, Rose Lambert, has been working on her own book for several months. Suddenly one morning she has a glass of wine, reads the opening few lines and then bins the whole thing. I didn’t mean that to happen. In fact I needed her to keep writing that book. But she is a strong-minded lady and she likes her wine so it’s difficult to argue with her.
How much of your life and the people around you do you put into your books?
Tough question. The answer is you cannot escape your own experiences and the people you know well and sometimes not so well. I think the best advice is that if you don’t want to appear as a character in books stay away from writers.
How did it feel when you saw your book in print for the first time?
I felt like opening a bottle of champagne. And I did.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing now?
I still have my day job: Managing Director of the Times Literary Supplement.