My Story so Far
I was born in 1974 in Bloomsbury, which I rather love because I like to think of myself as a babe being pushed through garden squares filled with blue plaques and the ghosts of bohemian men and women drifting about debating Art and Love and all that.
When I was still a baby my dad was in a terrible car accident and was in a coma for a long time. He was left without use of one side of his body and had to use a wheelchair. It is strange that possibly the worst event of your life (hopefully that is the case) is one you don’t remember because you were too little. We moved out of the Bloomsbury flat and into a house in Chiswick and a couple of years later my little sister Caroline was born. Chiswick was not that glamorous then. Now it’s like posh Hollywood by the river and you can’t move without bumping into Colin Firth and the like. I went to primary school by the Thames and we used to play in the mud of the riverbank picking out old bits of china and glass – this, along with playing in the street, playing in the Poo Park (it wasn’t called that but the name was sadly apt), walking to and from school, riding bikes and roller skates without helmets, write letters to Jim’ll Fix It etc. etc., were simple childish pleasures I would never allow my children to partake in now, obviously . . . The one thing that endures is reading. I read everything. My dad was an ex-editor who had worked at Hodder – he published the paperbacks of David Niven and Delia Smith and Jack Higgins and all sorts of people. He had also written several books himself, thrillers and football books, and continued to do so when we were children but, obviously, being his children, we couldn’t have cared less that he’d survived a huge accident and had a cool job . . . But he used to get sent books all the time and we liked that. By then, my mum was in publishing too, and she later became an editor for people like Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope – well done, Mum. So I would read everything I could get my hands on, from the library, from my parents’ shelves, from school – I absolutely loved it and I know now how lucky I was because, despite all the hard stuff that happened to us, we grew up in a house of books and too often people don’t.
I went to secondary school in Ealing which was OK. I wasn’t the happiest teenager, but then who is? I loved writing secret poems, singing in the choir, practising calligraphy, watching old films, reading 30s detective novels – I was, as you can imagine, quite the coolest girl in the year. I went to Bristol and read Classical Studies, translating Latin epigrams by day, staying out far too late and enjoying myself by night. Bristol: greatest city in the world: probable fact.
Then after three happy years, while my contemporaries went to Machu Picchu or hitch-hiked 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 is I didn’t really know what I’d do beyond sort of read and maybe act in musicals, neither of which are viable career options really, are they? 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. I ended up on Valium and kept throwing up and lost the enamel on the back of my teeth. Yep! My sister bruised her toe severely when she once kicked the building late one night because it had been so mean to her big sister. Thanks Cal!
So I was rather knocked down by this and wasn’t myself for a while. But in the pub one night, one of my university friends mentioned her stepmother’s publishing company was advertising for two secretarial positions. I applied for one and got it, and it was like coming home to the motherland. It was amazing. I realised that’s what I wanted to do. Everyone spoke the language I spoke for the first time in my life. I got to email people like Marian Keyes and Lisa Jewell and that was frankly amazing. 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 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. 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. Being on your own all day is hard. It’s really difficult to motivate yourself and not fall prey to those voices in your head, which we all have but which talk louder when there’s no one popping by saying ‘do you want a coffee’ or ‘have you seen that crazy email **** sent about ***** her *****?’
I am now published by Headline where I used to work but thankfully no one I used to work with is there any more or works on my books so they don’t know my awful secrets. I am so happy with my publishers, and the books I’m writing, and wish I could write all day. Writing is the biggest luxury to me. The big thing now is that I have two children, age six and one, my gorgeous girls. That rules my life in terms of how much time I have to write, and my dad isn’t super well these days, so I want to spend time with him. Also, knowing everything about Game of Thrones takes up quite a large proportion of my waking hours.
There’s also this man I live with, shouldn’t forget him. He’s called Chris and he is amazing, calm, super brainy (his head has little ridges on the side because it’s square to make room for all his brains), makes bread, is jolly, the best dad ever, can sing ‘Ring of Fire’ better than anyone bar Johnny Cash, and is literally the messiest person in the world. We live in North London in a house with a tiny garden, which I spend a lot of time trying to get to grow things to encourage the butterflies and wild flowers, because, you see, since my last two books were about butterflies and wild flowers I have got obsessed with them both, a bit. The new book – my ELEVENTH BOOK HOW DID THAT HAPPEN – is about painters and lost paintings and families and magic.
I have written eleven books, been published in lots of countries, sold over a million copies worldwide, and been in the Top Ten twice. I used to think I was the biggest freak alive and no one would be able to reach into my weird head and make sense of it. I suppose that’s what keeps me going now – once you realise people are interested in what’s in your weird head you want to get those stories down, to keep them gripped and give pleasure for a few hours. When I have more time I want to do more work with literacy charities (I wrote a book for Quick Reads a couple of years ago, a great organisation working on getting short, quick books into the hands of people who struggle with reading) and libraries helping adults to gain confidence in the world of books and hopefully with themselves. I want my daughters to understand that, that being yourself, letting yourself be the biggest, most enthusiastic geek alive is the biggest favour you can do yourself. The stories in my head are all there because of things I’ve read about and become passionate about, thanks to libraries, books, good teachers, good bosses, amazing authors. Even if no one wants to publish them, I’ll carry on making up and writing down the stories I want to read.