You can read my review of her book The Report here
First of all what sparked off your Passion for Novels?
Reading as a child. I’ve always loved novels.
All authors have a struggle, what was the moment when you knew you'd made it? Was there a point where you ever nearly gave up?
The first time I had a story accepted by a major literary magazine was a big moment. It was the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the acceptance came in the SASE I’d included with my submission. I thought it was another rejection, which I’d been getting for years. Had to read the letter several times before I understood the editor was taking the story. I’m not sure I thought I’d “made it,” but it satisfied an important goal for me, which was to break into these magazines. I hoped it was a beginning. Giving up is not an option, unfortunately, as I’m not sure who I’d be if I didn’t write, but there was a moment when I feared I’d let too much time pass without writing. This was when my first child was a baby. Things improved, however. I found a balance between writing and mothering and got back to work.
Have you always wanted to be an author or did you just get that magical idea for a novel?
I’ve always been a person who was working on stories, essays, and one day, I hoped, a novel.
Where do you write? Do you have a special place?
I like to work in libraries. I like the camaraderie of other silent workers, and I like leaving the house to do my work. It helps me separate the different spheres of my life.
What authors are your inspirations for writing?
Graham Green, Penelope Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many more, but I always come back to these three.
What was the first writing project you can remember thinking up? (even if it was when you were young)
I remember I started a story about a silver island. I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 at the time and I was reading Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy. I told myself I had to work on the story every day before school. I wrote about twelve pages before abandoning it. When I was 12, I wrote a story about a cat in an animal shelter. She dies at the end. My teacher, who usually read student stories aloud to the class, said it was too sad for him to read and made me do it. I had a vague sense that I’d done something different, maybe even good.
What sparked off the idea for this novel, I understand it is based on horrific events but how did you first come across it?
I walked into an event at the British Library when I was living in London in 2000. The man talking was the editor of a new series of books—government reports of historical interest not previously available in a popular format. As I walked in, he was talking about the tragedy at Bethnal Green.
Do you base your characters on people you know or are they just inventions?
My characters are amalgams of invention, memory, observation and research. Sometimes even I forget which is which.
Is there a character in the novel you think you'd get along best with?
I’d like to meet Clare.
I love that there isn't really a person to blame in the novel, you handle this with a sensitive prose. How did you go about this process in order to do justice to history?
The accident was a mystery and upon investigation it was revealed that a number of things contributed to the disaster. This ambiguity left room for me to explore the role of blame after a tragedy, which is what I wanted to do.
Is there any other projects we can look forward to involving the same kind of historical outlook?
I’m finishing a new collection of stories now, THIS CLOSE, to be published by Graywolf Press in the US next March. The last story in the collection is historically imagined, but I can’t say what it is about yet because it’s not done! In general the stories in this collection explore themes of friendship and neighborliness, marriage and ambition.
Was your intention to make people more aware of this disaster?
It was not my intention, but I am so glad that that has happened along the way.
I have to say that the novel ties so well between the past and the present which is something I love in novels. Did you find this process difficult or was it easier in order to tell the story in two different ways?
When I began writing, the novel was set entirely in 1943. But as I worked, I realized I wanted to explore the way our perception of blame changes over time. I wanted to write of the tragedy, but also how we attempt to publicly reckon disasters of this kind. I wanted immediacy and reflection, so I began to imagine another character, Paul Barber, who would allow me to introduce these elements. It was great fun to turn the tables on Laurie Dunne. In the 1943 sections of the book, he does the questioning, but in the later sections, he is the one questioned.
Any advice to wannabe writers like me?
Read and write a lot. Write anything. It will all help in the end.
Thanks so much for joining us at Passion for Novels.