Frequently Asked Questions
Did you always want to be a writer?
I talked about being a writer as a child because I loved books so much. It was either writer or librarian. Only in my twenties did I begin to write seriously.
What did you read as a child?
Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, Beverly Cleary, K.M. Peyton, Zylpha Keatley Snyder, Madeleine L’Engle, Joan Aiken, Susan Cooper, Anne McCaffrey, Lloyd Alexander, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis. Yes, a lot of fantasy – which now I don’t read at all.
How do you get an idea for a book?
Ideas never come when I look for them, but sneak up on me when I’m doing something else. Sometimes something visual sparks an idea: a painting, a set of tapestries, a particular color of blue. Other times I am drawn to an unusual person: William Blake, Mary Anning. When something strikes me it’s like a spark in my head that ignites, and I know immediately that there’s a novel in it.
Do you plan out the whole book before you write it?
No. I usually know where the story is going, what some of the big events in the book will be, but I keep those points in my head rather than write them down in an outline. Outlines are fine for nonfiction, but they kill novels. I try to find a balance between knowing where I’m heading and allowing for side trips and spontaneity. Too much planning can make a book feel self-conscious and forced; too little can make it ramble and lose focus.
What is a typical writing day like?
Once my son leaves for school, I check email and fiddle around online until I can’t put it off anymore. Then I sit in my study by the window that overlooks our small garden and read what I’ve written the previous day.
I write longhand in a notebook on my lap, and type in to the computer what I’ve written at the end of the day. I prefer to write longhand because my mind thinks at roughly the same speed as my hand writes, whereas I type too fast. I’m much more careful about what I write longhand than what I type. Also, I edit what I write constantly, and on paper I can see what corrections I’ve made, whereas on a screen all the messiness of it gets erased so that there’s only the seductively clean words left.
I try to write 1000 words per writing day. That’s about three pages, and it works well for me because it’s normally part of a scene but not all of it, so I spend at least two or three days writing a scene. Sometimes I write more than 1000 words but I find I start to get sloppy.
The words come slowly and painfully, sentence by sentence. I don’t like my writing, and constantly cross out and berate myself. But that’s part of the process. I also allow myself to get distracted way too much: if I really focussed, I could be done by 10am, but that never happens.
What writing rituals do you have?
The first thing I do when I start a book is to choose a notebook for research and for writing that reflects an aspect of the novel. The Remarkable Creatures notebook was marbled like stone. The Last Runaway notebook is grey on the outside and yellow in the endpapers, like the main character’s bonnet, and I’ve pasted a photo of a 19th-century woman wearing a bonnet on the cover.
I prefer to use disposable fountain pens, blue ink if possible – I’m left-handed, and “real” fountain pens don’t work for me.
I like to pin on my study walls images that relate to the book I’m working on – paintings, photographs, and always maps so that I know where my characters are going.
What do you do when you have writer's block?
I have never been seriously blocked. The good thing about writing historical novels is that there’s always more research to do or refer to. If I get stuck, I look over my research notes or read another source, and that usually gets me going again.
Are your books or characters autobiographical?
Not deliberately so. I don’t find myself and my life particularly interesting, and I don’t see why anyone else would either.
Having said that, I think all writing is indirectly autobiographical, as it reveals a writer’s preoccupations. For instance, if you read my books it becomes clear that I am interested in people in situations outside of their normal lives – like Griet in Vermeer’s house, or Mary Anning dealing with middle class scientific men, or Honor Bright stuck in America. I myself live as an American in Britain – an outsider looking in. In that way my books are autobiographical.
Why do you set your novels in the past?
1. To escape myself.
2. I write about the past more objectively – and more observantly – than I do the present.
3. I learn a lot of stuff I didn’t know about.
4. Taking the long view makes us understand better how we fit into the world.
5. It’s easier to convince readers of my authority as a writer if I know more about something than they do. In general people have fewer opinions about the past than the present, so they’re more willing to accept mine.
How do you research your books?
Research is like concentric rings radiating out. I start by researching the specific thing that sparked my interest: Vermeer, Mary Anning, the Underground Railroad. When I feel comfortable with that information, I take a step outwards, and research the nearby places. Then the region, the country, the politics, what’s going on in the world. Hence from specific to general.
I do a lot of reading, and a lot of looking – at maps, at paintings of the time, at photos of the places. Then I visit the places where I want to set the book. I also like to get hands-on experience of the sorts of things my characters do. For Girl With a Pearl Earring I took a painting class to get a feel for paint. I began looking for fossils on the beaches where Mary Anning hunted in Remarkable Creatures. I am now make quilts by hand like Honor Bright in The Last Runaway.
Which is your favorite of your books?
I always love the book I’ve just written the best, probably because in order to write it I’ve had to become obsessed with it. That feeling eventually fades, though, and then I can view them more objectively. Now I can see that some – Girl with a Pearl Earring, Remarkable Creatures – have probably worked better for readers than others.
What did you think of the film of Girl with a Pearl Earring?
I was relieved. The film managed to be respectful of the book yet also be its own thing, like sisters who are clearly related even if they don’t look exactly alike.
For me the best thing about the film is its cinematography. It’s so beautiful to look at – like a moving Vermeer painting.
For a longer answer, see the article I wrote about the film: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2003/dec/28/fiction.features
You studied for an MA in creative writing. How useful was it for you to attend such a course? Can writing be taught?
People seem to think that writers should just be able to do it naturally, without being taught. Why don’t people say this about musicians, or artists, or athletes? Most of us can run, but no one would suggest that a professional sprinter doesn’t need to train since they already know how to run! I should think the same would apply to writers, yet people somehow expect writers to write well instinctively.
However, there’s only so much that you can learn from a class. In the end the inspiration’s got to be there, and that doesn’t come from training.
Which writers do you like to read?
Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Ann Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan. Lots of others. I range around contemporary fiction.
Which writers have influenced you?
I don’t write like any of them, but I have really noticed the writing of Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood.
What advice can you give to writers starting out?
Don’t write about what you know – write about what you’re interested in. Don’t write about yourself – you aren’t as interesting as you think! There’s a whole world out there to explore. Be very critical – your writing can always be improved. Editing is the most important part of writing.
Write consistently. Choose a time of the day or week for writing and stick with it, even if you don’t feel like it. Treat writing as you would exercise.
Don’t worry about the publishing side of writing: it’s too easy to use that as a distraction. Focus on writing the best possible thing you can. I really think good writing will always find an audience.