What made you start, and finish, The School Gate Survival Guide?
After living in Italy where snobbery tends to be confined to job title and regional superiority (the northern Italians see themselves as higher in the hierarchy than southern Italians), I realised those two affectations were just the beginning of social snobbery in Britain. I’ve never lived anywhere else in the world where the way you cut a piece of cheese or the word you use for where you watch TV (sitting room, lounge, front room) can somehow denote your social class! I wanted to write a novel that looked at these idiosyncrasies in a humorous way. I finished it because I was enrolled in an online writing programme at the University of California. Every week I had a deadline and feedback, and that spurred me on to complete the novel.
What’s your answer to the question; how do you research a sex scene?
I always say that I listen to people’s mobile phone conversations on the way back from London late at night on the train!
Is there one particular place that you like to write, or do you like to switch it up from time to time?
I’d love to come up with something really exotic but the truth is I have a very demanding Lab/Giant Schnauzer and when she sees me sitting down, she assumes I have time to play with her. So I go to Starbucks every morning to escape the doleful eyes and a tennis ball being dropped at my feet every five minutes. Once I’ve written a thousand words, I might carry on writing at home, or work on marketing/blogs/social media.
Is there any one person who first inspired you to write, or to take your writing seriously? A teacher, a friend?
I entered the first three pages of my novel into a competition at Winchester Writers’ Festival. One of the judges, author Adrienne Dines, very generously rang me up to tell me how much she liked my writing and to prepare me for my one-to-ones with the agents there. Encouraging feedback from someone who was already published meant a lot to me. Now I’ve had a little bit of success, I try and spread the good karma around and help other new authors.
We’re all different in how we set about starting a book. What’s your process? Do you scribble ideas first, or go straight to the computer and type, Chapter One?
I don’t write much down before I start apart from a brief outline of the main characters and their personality traits. The onIy element I never compromise on is writing down the thing the characters want most in life. In The School Gate Survival Guide, the protagonist is a cleaner and wants her kids to have a better life than hers. It sounds very simplistic, but that guiding principle informs every decision and every reaction she has in the book.
I tend to mull about characters and plot for quite some months before I actually start writing. Even though I am on book four now, I still look at the first blank page and think, ‘I don’t know how I did this before.’
Do you know exactly how your book is going to turn out when you start, or do you have to write it to find out?
I know how my books start and end, and about fifteen things that happen in between, though not necessarily in which order. My writing is very character driven, so at the risk of sounding a bit pompous, I have to write the story to get to know who my characters are, and it all unfolds from there. I am always open to taking a new direction if it ‘fits’ better.
What’s your office like? Tidy, or like the paper shop in Bleak House, about to spontaneously combust?
I fight my natural messiness all the time but because I write contemporary novels about ordinary women with ordinary lives, I don’t have piles of research notes to keep in order. Also, because I work in Starbucks, I don’t want them to ban me, I feel some obligation to stay within the norms of social respectability! The business side of writing – accounts, receipts, tax stuff – I chuck in a huge folder and have the devil’s own job working it all out when the time comes.
Do you collect anything? And if you do, is it somehow connected to your writing?
I hate ‘stuff’. I won’t let anyone buy me presents unless they are practical – a clutch for the car, saucepans, a fridge – are just some recent gifts from my husband. But I do have a weakness for brightly coloured ceramics – bowls, jugs, vases. They remind me of my nomadic twenties, when I worked in Spain, Italy and Corsica doing everything from grape picking to working as a cook and teaching English. I use all that experience in my novels – each one so far has a connection to an exotic location.
Have you ever sneaked one of your pets, or something you own into one of your books?
Payback time for the dog – in book three, I’ve used all of her misdemeanours – stealing food, escaping from the garden, sleeping on our beds, chasing kites, bikes and the worst – catching a rabbit – in all their multi-coloured glory.
Do your children duck for cover when their friends ask them about what their mother does? How do they feel about your writing?
My son, who is fifteen, rolls his eyes a bit and says, ‘If they ask you to come into school to give a workshop, you won’t, will you?’ He seems slightly more impressed since the books were sold in Germany and Brazil. My thirteen-year-old daughter alternates between saying things like, ‘How hard can it be to write a book?’ as though it’s something I could dash out between hanging out the washing and cooking dinner, and being really quite proud. She’s read The School Gate Survival Guide and told me off for the swearing.
What are the pros and cons about working from home?
The dog is a definite con, see above! I find most people don’t really take my job seriously when I say I work from home because I don’t have to clock in with a boss. They feel free to ring up to chat for half an hour in a way they wouldn’t if I was in an office and are slightly offended when I say I haven’t got time to meet for coffee or lunch. I have learnt to guard my time very carefully otherwise the kids think I am on the other end of a phone, just waiting to trot over to school with forgotten homework, PE kit etc. On the upside, I don’t have to deal with any office politics or sit in any tedious meetings, so when I am at work, I can concentrate all my energy on writing.
Read Kerry Fisher interviewing Anne Gracie in the finale of our #RomanceRelay from Friday 31st July.