I’m not sure I could write anywhere else – London shapes a lot of my books. I am a Londoner by choice but my roots are northern, and this combination is reflected in just about everything I do. I love London more than anywhere else in the world but I am glad that I come from somewhere else.
In fact, I was born abroad. My father was in the army and was stationed in Kuala Lumpur when I arrived in 1960. I am a classic middle child, attention-seeking and jealous. This affects my writing too: I am obsessed with families, the petty rivalries, the pecking order and the blood ties.
As a child I wanted a doll’s house more than anything, but I never got a proper one. My mother encouraged me to make one out of cornflake packets, but what I really wanted was one with working lights. I think writing books is quite similar to playing with a doll’s house. I have to be able to picture my characters in their domestic settings, and I have ‘stolen’ all sorts of houses over the years – friends’, neighbours’, my sister’s – then I move the furniture around and repaint the walls.
When it comes to characters I sort of ‘find’ them in their domestic settings. They mostly arrive fully formed, but sometimes they are composites of people I know. My sister always thinks I’m borrowing bits of her life, but apart from the house that features in Moving, I tend to steer clear of anything too autobiographical. That said, Jean, the mother in my third novel, is physically my grandmother’s doppelgänger, right down to her very small feet!
I’m a watcher. If I eat out, I always face into the room so I can see what’s going on. I know I should be giving my partner my undivided attention, but I’m mostly looking at some odd-looking couple, wondering how on earth they ever found each other. When my daughter was little and we went on holiday we’d make up stories about everyone in the hotel breakfast room; when she was eight she described a couple of women as ‘lady lesbian jockeys’ – unsurprisingly, she’s now a playwright.
I find enormous comfort in writing. I like not having to go out, I like working in my pyjamas, I like being able to keep my own hours and take a nap whenever I fancy, which is most afternoons at around four.
I don’t plot out my books, I put the people in their houses and let them get on with it, and sometimes they take me by surprise. I have never known how a book is going to end when I start.
I wish I could write less organically, I’m sure it would be a lot more efficient. I’ve never used Post-it notes or a whiteboard; sometimes it feels like I’ve got very little control over what’s going on. Writing stand-up is a very different proposition, but I don’t seem to have any method for that either, it’s just a question of slogging away with odd bursts of inspiration. I’ve always said that writing punchlines is like finding a rainbow on a day when there is neither rain nor sun!
Basically, I think what I’ve learnt is that if I sit here for long enough, eventually something will happen.