A short-ish bio… actually not that short at all.
I was born in London in 1974 and grew up on the mean streets of Chiswick. At school I was a completely undistinguished pupil in every way, except I absolutely loved reading and drama. My only achievements from the age of five to eighteen were, a) winning a doodling competition at primary school (of a witch flying in the sky with balloons in her hand), b) I was head chorister of the church choir, which believe me is not something that wins you cool points with anyone you know c) I wrote an article for Harpers & Queen’s Teenage Issue when I was fourteen which meant going to a very smart gallery opening in my friend Kate’s black Lycra evening dress from Next (I’ve still got a copy of the magazine and I look like a lanky vulture), d) reading. I read all the time, when I wasn’t re-enacting musicals or scenes from Dallas out in my parents’ back garden.
After school I went to Bristol University and read Classical Studies. I absolutely loved Bristol and I liked being a student and being with people who didn’t know my shameful head chorister past. I left university after three happy years and, while my contemporaries went to Machu Picchu or hitchhiked around the Hindu Kush, I adventurously headed straight back down the motorway to London again to start the rest of my life. The only problem was I didn’t really know what I’d do.
I wanted to get into magazines, but the only place that would employ me was the Lady magazine, which turned out to be one of those awful first jobs where you think your working life will always be like this: I was wholly unequipped for office life, its politics, its mundanity, its tensions. I did, however, learn how one polishes chandeliers and a lot about interesting road signs in Devon, though that wasn’t enough to stop me feeling pretty miserable for a while.
Several months later I was lucky enough to get into publishing, first at Penguin, where I worked for seven years, progressing from secretary to editorial director and working mainly on women’s fiction. It was amazing. I realised that’s what I wanted to do. Like everyone spoke the language I spoke for the first time in my life. I got to email people like Marian Keyes and Lisa Jewell! They knew my name! I worked with Sue Townsend and Lesley Pearse, and spent one very happy summer with my friend Lindsey checking Blackadder TV scripts against the programmes which basically meant sitting in a room watching videos. I was able to operate a video recorder with my toes by the end of the summer (Lindsey and I also won a pair of tickets in a Big Breakfast giveaway to watch Friends being filmed in London and were in the studio when Monica and Chandler woke up together and I’m sure you can hear my gasp of surprise louder than anyone’s as we were right next to that big boom microphone. That will always be my greatest claim to fame.) I left Penguin in 2003 and went to another publisher, Hodder Headline, where I stayed until 2009 and where I was super happy, working with authors such as Penny Vincenzi, Emily Barr and Louise Bagshawe, and coming up with initiatives like rejacketing Jane Austen’s novels to appeal to a younger female audience.
In the meantime, I had started writing in the mornings before work, and in 2003 I sent the first few pages of my book to an agent under a pseudonym. This is still amazing to me as a) I hate getting up early and b) I fear rejection like I fear spiders. But eventually, to my great joy, this led to a publishing deal with HarperCollins, whom I was with for ten years and who published my first seven novels (SEVEN!! That’s CRAZY!). I was absolutely over the moon to be a published author and, having spent most of my career like all editors grumbling about authors, I instantly turned into a total author nightmare, slagging off publishing, snogging sales directors at sales conferences, berating booksellers for not stocking my book, bringing my boyfriend along to meetings, and delivering my new manuscript two weeks before publication (Not really, promise).
In 2009, I realised it was becoming harder to balance the two jobs, and writing won out, and I know I’m very fortunate to be in a position to write full time, though I missed the office something chronic the first year after I left. It’s awful going to work on a rainy Monday morning, but there’s something great about walking down the road with your iPod in and your coffee in your hand ready to attack another day. When you’re inside all day wearing loose clothing and glasses you don’t feel quite the same…and I have more than once found myself holding conversations with the particularly friendly blackbird that sits on our table in the garden. (Hearing yourself saying the words, ‘Well hello again Mrs Blackbird! How was your weekend?’ is a real moment to pause and reflect I have to say).
Nevertheless I love my job. I know that, if no-one wanted to publish my books I’d still write stories for myself. I write the books I want to read, stories about characters I’m interested in. And I am passionate about commercial fiction, especially what is called commercial women’s fiction, which seems to me to come in for an extraordinary amount of bile and patronising comment, in contrast to the same kind of books by men, which get reviewed, discussed, accepted into the canon with far greater ease. Books about young women’s lives, their jobs, romances, nights out, what they like doing, are seen as frippery and silly; books about young men’s lives covering exactly the same topics are discussed and debated, often accepted as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and cultural scene. In addition there are so many books by women novelists in the twentieth century that have been criminally overlooked in contrast to men’s: I think Elizabeth Jane Howard is a far greater novelist than most of her contemporaries, and yet because she writes about families and home and domestic entanglements (all of which are superbly interesting and relevant) she is overlooked. I think this is what makes me even more passionate about what I do. I’m also lucky enough to have been able to write a short book for the Quick Reads charity last year. Quick Reads is a brilliant programme that produces six titles a year all priced at £1 and all aimed at emergent readers (i.e. people who struggle with reading) or those who don’t enjoy reading and want a fast simple read (1 in 6 adults in the UK) or those who simply want something to read while waiting for the toaster to pop up (loads of us) and it made me realise for the first time properly how many people find reading and books stressful and feel intimidated by them and have no confidence in their ability to read, and how important it is that they don’t get left behind. Especially today when everything is online, onscreen.
After ten lovely years with HarperCollins I changed publishers last year to be published by Headline, which is the company I worked for many years ago and I feel I have come full circle in some way. It is wonderful, as most people there are new, but I was very happy there and it’s great to be on the other side of the process with them. My new novel, A Place for Us, is being serialised over four months in ebook only, from July-October 2014, and then is out in a proper paperback in January. It’s very exciting! It’s really cool to watch people reading each part of the novel and wondering what happens next. I hope they’re pleased…!
My boyfriend and I live in Angel, in North London, by the canal. We have a two-year-old daughter, Cora, who is er… how shall I put this… quite strong in her opinions at the moment (two and a half year olds… oh my goodness!). This morning she told me that she hates potatoes but loves chips and when I said chips were made from potatoes she shouted, ‘NO. THEY ARE MADE FROM YELLOW THINGS.’ Chris and I are the only couple I know who actively enjoy going to IKEA together and never row. This keeps us strong when we argue over whose turn it is to unpack the dishwasher.
My mum and dad both work in publishing and my dad wrote thrillers many years ago, so you could say writing is in the blood. I don’t know about that, I just know I love it. As I said, I write the books that I want to read. I love getting involved with the world I’ve created and the people within it. Hopefully that means the reader loses themselves in something for a few hours too, something that makes them smile, keeps them gripped and is complete escapism.